Newsroom employees at The Los Angeles Times will cast ballots Thursday on whether to form a union, in what they believe is the first time journalists have held a union vote in the newspaper’s 136-year history.
Workers — who are calling for more competitive salaries, equitable pay for women and minorities, more generous benefits and improved working conditions — began voting at 10 a.m. in a first-floor community room at The Times headquarters in downtown Los Angeles and at the company’s offices in Orange County. Those who work remotely or who are on assignment will be able to vote using mail-in ballots.
A tally of the vote is expected to be announced on Jan. 19; forming a union requires a simple majority of votes cast.
The unit would include roughly 380 employees. People familiar with the process said they believed the organizing effort had the votes to join the NewsGuild, which represents 25,000 reporters, editors, photojournalists and other media workers at news organizations across the United States.
The union vote affirms something of a shift at The Times, where a bombing by union organizers in 1910 helped shape an historically anti-union stance. The organizing effort has also exacerbated tensions between newsroom employees and the newspaper’s executives.
Times employees, who have seen repeated management and ownership turmoil over the years, have long expressed skepticism over their top leaders, but a wave of recent changes further strained their relationship.
Over the last several months, Tronc, the Times’s Chicago-based corporate parent, installed a new publisher, Ross Levinsohn, and editor in chief, Lewis D’Vorkin, who has vowed a “digital transformation” that has left some in the newsroom anxious. A dispute between The Times and the Walt Disney Company also raised tensions between the paper’s employees and its new top management, with some employees questioning how Mr. D’Vorkin had handled the paper’s response.
Management typically counters efforts to organize employees, but many in The Times newsroom — especially against the backdrop of already tense relations — said they felt that those in charge have been unduly aggressive in the attempt to thwart the union effort.
“You can’t just try on a union and easily get rid of it later if it doesn’t live up to the promises,” Mr. D’Vorkin and Jim Kirk, another top editor, said in an email to employees on Wednesday in advance of the vote. “The question to you is do you want to preserve your independence and the independence of the Los Angeles Times or do you want someone else negotiating on your behalf?”
During a staff meeting in November, after learning that a recording of an earlier meeting had been leaked to a reporter from The New York Times, Mr. D’Vorkin said anyone involved with the act was “morally bankrupt,” according to several people in attendance.
“Our recent change of newsroom leadership provided our managers a brief opportunity to restore some trust. They chose not to try,” Doug Smith, a senior writer who has worked at The Times for nearly 50 years, wrote in a post in support of the union. “For the first time in my nearly five decades at The Times, I, along with my colleagues, have been publicly scolded by my publisher and by my editor.”
In an emailed statement, a Tronc spokeswoman said, “The Company urges every individual in the LA Times newsroom to get out and vote. We believe that by working together, rather than through a third party, we can build on the LA Time’s heritage and trust with readers. We remain committed to providing a productive and safe working environment for all employees, and will continue to act with the best interest of all of our employees in mind.”
As newsroom employees prepared for the election, the union organizing committee has tried to combat Tronc’s anti-union push by reporting on The Times and the compensation and perks its leaders receive. In November, it published a report on its website about Tronc executives, including Michael W. Ferro Jr., the company’s chairman. The report detailed what the committee described as “outsize compensation” for company executives, as well as Mr. Ferro’s use of a private jet that Tronc had paid to sublease from Merrick Ventures — a company led by Mr. Ferro.
On Dec. 22, the Friday before Christmas, Tronc disclosed in a filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission that it had agreed to pay Merrick Ventures $5 million annually on a rolling, three-year basis “to provide certain management expertise and technical services.” The news — even as some employees say they have not received raises in years — rankled many in the newsroom and helped bolster the unionization effort. Tronc had been pushing for the election to be held in mid-December, before it disclosed the agreement, according to two people familiar with the process. (The company said the contract was a replacement for the private arrangement of the aircraft sublease.)
Workers at many of the country’s prominent news publications, including The Washington Post, The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, are represented by unions. There has also been a recent push for organization at digital news outlets; employees at several such companies, including HuffPost and Vice Media, are now union members.